Ideal meets Other

Stories that have been passed on through the ages have been bearers of a set of values. They have defined what is good, and what is Ideal. It is this Ideal around which we find our identity, finding ourselves either inadequate or accomplished. These stories tell us that fair is beautiful, that an ideal man supports his family and an ideal woman is caring and nurturing. The forms that stories take keep changing but the inherent definition of the Ideal hasn’t changed radically over the years. It remains consistent, singular and unilateral. This kind of representation alienates people who differ significantly from the ideal. It creates a rift between who is identifiable and who is the Other.

This problematic homogenization of narratives is being challenged over the last few years. The digital age and Globalization have led to a convergence of cultures, lending platforms for questioning and rethinking. As cultures are borrowing from each other, they are redefining and broadening the scope of their Ideal, making room for more deviations. Moreover, digital media has given a mouthpiece to previously under, or misrepresented communities. As a result, we see and hear of more diverse narratives questioning conventional ideals and giving voice to the other.

Nandita Das’s ‘Stay Unfair, Stay Beautiful’ campaign challenged the deeply ingrained aspiration for fair skin, the belief that fair is the Ideal. She said “We keep saying things like ‘Uska rang saaf nahi hai’ as if dark skin is a dirty thing. This mindset is then propagated in our songs, stories and movies.” And she is only one of the many voices, who by the mere virtue of being present, demand to be noticed and represented; claiming space in mass communication. It is only now that these divergent voices are being amplified and accepted, with the result that authorities responsible for representation are increasingly held answerable to a call for inclusion.

Content creators are starting to represent the Other as an important participant in stories. The film Margarita with a Straw, saw a differently-abled woman as its protagonist, who questioned the notion of an ideal sexual identity. Shuddh Desi Romance told us the story of a couple who is in love, but doesn’t believe in the conventions of marriage –a conscious subversion of the idealized form of love. English Vinglish has a housewife as its protagonist, throwing light on the caliber of women who don’t ‘go out to work’. Even prime time TV shows have begun to explore protagonists who deviate from the Ideal. Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Ye explored the journey of a married woman who finds independence and companionship outside her marriage, while a business woman falls in love with a man several years younger to her in Kehta hai Dil Jee le Zara.

It can be argued that brand communication has seen the least change with this respect. Through the years, it has been the most potent vehicle of stereotyped ideals. Because nuances of human insights often end up becoming simplified representations of the lowest common denominator. So advertising has often been predictable in its depiction of the ideal mom in food products ads, the ideal homemaker in kitchen products and the responsible father in life insurance and financial product advertising. Since advertising is not just about entertaining and relevant story telling — the economics of brands depends on the stories brands tell. So the decision to make any change almost always meets with over-deliberation and resistance, leading to most brands erring on the side of caution. But in doing so, we underestimate our audience and end up playing it safe in the fear of alienating or offending them.

However, in a more digitally-equalizing world, as more people find a voice, the other is beginning to find itself included by brands, even if a bit grudgingly.

Barbie, the popular blonde blue eyed doll has been criticized for cultivating unrealistic body ideals. So now, the doll comes in a number of different skin tones, body types and hair styles and has more than 150 careers to choose from — clearly because the brand felt more answerable to its audience. When Haneefah Adam, a Nigerian woman, dressed her Barbie in a Hijab to make her more identifiable and put up a picture on Instagram, she got over 17,000 followers. People asked her when these ‘hijarbies’ would be available for purchase. It is clearly difficult for a brand to ignore the plea for diversity when it gets amplified and garners support.

Even Axe has broken away from the kind of advertising it’s been doing for years. Its advertising perpetuated the notion that a man’s accomplishment was determined by the number of (fantastically attractive) women he succeeds to attract. Its most recent communication, however, showcases a number of men, each starkly different from the other. “Who wants the other thing, when you’ve got your thing?” the brand asks, celebrating individual traits and making space for diversity. The brand still aims to define the ideal type of man — only, it does so by including other types of men in its definition of the ideal man.

These campaigns have caught the attention of many, but the fact that they stand out proves that inclusion of the other has not yet become the norm in brand communication. And this is a cause that brands need to take up — not just because it is profitable for the brand. Like Seth Godin says, “Consumption is not the point. Humanity and connection are trumping the desire for corporate scale.” Of course the decision to make any change is, and will always be, risky. And there is a prudent balance to be maintained. Representing the Other just for the sake of being different stands the chance of being irrelevant or alienating. But diversity that aims to address everyone the brand caters to, only brings the brand closer to all its people.

To be fair, ideals are our way to make sense of the world and to have something to aspire to as a society. So wanting to break away from defined ideals is not only unrealistic, but probably also detrimental. Thankfully, what is changing, is that we are broadening the definition of ideals to include pluralistic representations. These new stories mirror the eclectic mix of individuals that make up our society and create ideals that are relatable, reassuring and achievable. And if the purpose of brand communication is to inspire behavior and attitudinal change, then what better way to do it than to show people role models that reflect their own best selves? Because there is hardly anything more inspiring than saying ‘If someone like you can do it, so can you!’

This post was originally published in DDB Diaries -http://ddbdiariesindia.tumblr.com/

DDB Diaries India is DDB Mudra Group’s attempt to stay inspired, imaginative and influential. Get in touch with them at diariesindia@ddbmudragroup.com to learn more.

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